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Israel is re-opening the economy, and the world is watching our success story against COVID-19. Many parameters probably played a role in reducing the health impact of the virus. Still, it seems that closing the borders early and the outstanding behavior of the population are the main factors. The overwhelming majority of Israelis agreed to make drastic changes to save lives. This behavior isn’t unusual, Israelis live permanently in a state of emergency, almost instinctively, we come together in solidarity and unity at times of danger. But, the citizens also dictated the end of the strict lockdowns when the economic and emotional cost became unbearable. As days passed, and the virus felt less devastating than previously thought citizens demanded an end of the restrictions, leaving no choice to our government than to relax the most coercive legislation.
However, there is a tool that our government used during this crisis: military-grade surveillance on private citizens, and even as we return to our “normal” life, this monitoring persists. The use of such surveillance was defended as a tool for saving lives through contact tracing of the infection. It turns out that this system, operated by the Shin Bet, only helped reveal a minuscule number of cases. Despite those poor results, we are still under full surveillance even after the containment of the virus and return to “normal” activities. Detailed information about every single aspect of our life is being watched and stored by government agencies. They know who we meet, how long we spend with our friends, where we shop, where we walk. They trace every action we take during the day. It’s often described as one of the most intrusive surveillance systems in the world and with the exception of China, no other countries have deployed such monitoring in their fight against COVID-19.
In fact, until a few weeks ago, this type of surveillance had only been used against suspected terrorists. Have we all become suspected terrorists in the eyes of our government?
Some will say that they have nothing to hide, and that surveillance is only a small imposition for saving a life, but the choice isn’t between privacy or health, we can have them both. The Health ministry app, HAMAGEN, is already less intrusive to our privacy than the Shin Bet run surveillance. It is open-source, offering higher transparency than military software and presumably anonymous. Unfortunately, the data collected is stored in a centralized server susceptible to a single point of failure in case of a human mistake or an enemy attack. More secure decentralized solutions based on blockchain technology already started to appear on the market. Our start-up nation is undoubtedly capable of building a decentralized, open-source, anonymous application that will excel at contact tracing and respect our privacy.
Defaulting to the most intrusive surveillance system shows that our government doesn’t place any value on our privacy and security.
Israelis are aware of the dangers of using such surveillance, on the civilian population. In a survey administered by the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies on April 1, 67% of the respondents expressed concern about the use of surveillance on private citizens, and 55% doubted that the government would cancel civilian monitoring after the crisis.
A month later, the Shin Bet surveillance is still going strong, with no sign that the government will ever want to cancel it. Our Prime Minister even proudly raised the idea of placing ankle bracelets on children that would buzz when they don’t practice social distancing. This proposal isn’t a new episode of “Black Mirror” or a scene from 1984; this is our Prime Minister talking on national television during his latest press conference (from minute 22).
It is time for each of us to think about the world our families will live in tomorrow; this is a fight for our home. If Israeli citizens fail to demand the immediate cancellation of this military-grade monitoring on our phones and internet activities by the Shin Bet agency, it will become a permanent feature of our lives.
A national discussion needs to take place in total transparency between the government and its citizens. It is not appropriate, to say the least, that such an emergency measure, never activated before in Israel, will be swept through the Knesset without substantial national deliberations and dialogue with the citizens.
Contact tracing may be a necessity, but it needs to be entirely voluntary and based on reciprocal trust between the government and the citizens. As the citizens trust the government to protect them, the government needs to trust its citizens to do the right thing and stop monitoring them like suspected terrorists.Published in